Imagine 31 movies that all share very similar plots. Some share the same lead actor (with a different character name and job). Cast members pop up in supporting roles across the lineup. And every debut takes place over two months on the same cable channel.

That repetitiveness sounds like a formula for failure, right?

Wrong. It’s the formula for enviable success at the Hallmark Channel that other platforms (including Netflix) study and copy.

And it offers a reason for content marketers to reconsider the idea that they must create innovative or completely original content if they want to attract and keep audiences.

Love ’em, hate ’em, or don’t care, you’re probably somewhat familiar with Hallmark movies. As a reminder, here’s how the formula works:

  • A woman experiences a life change and travels to a new destination that’s supposed to be temporary. It’s often a trip to visit family or a short-term relocation for a work project.
  • While there, she encounters a challenge – the family business is failing, or the owner of a property her employer wants to acquire doesn’t want to sell.
  • She also encounters a man with whom she has a conflict – a childhood classmate she no longer likes, a person who works for her employer’s competitor.
  • As she works to resolve her challenge, she discovers the man is helpful or not the bad guy she thought he was.
  • The couple realizes they like each other.
  • She decides to stay, and the movie ends with a kiss.

Why does it work to tell the same tale every day for months or even all year (Hallmark has expanded that storytelling model from Christmas to all four seasons)? And, can the Hallmark approach work in content marketing?

Let’s explore.

1. Original content isn’t (always) required

Take a page from Hallmark’s script and spend less time trying to come up with original ideas and unique content. Familiar content remixed into new packages works just as well or even better to attract and grow audiences. Recognizable content signals make it easier to consume the content and set expectations for easy to understand and rewarding outcomes. (Hallmark movies lend themselves to multitasking – even if you don’t pay attention for a few minutes, you can easily catch up.)

I’m not suggesting that none of your content should be original or thought-provoking. You still have to add your brand’s unique spin and a new angle to the familiar elements in your content. Sprinkle in a few original ideas that will attract audience members who always want something different while retaining those who rely on the familiar to help them warm up to fresh ideas and approaches.

Related: 4 Reasons Why Focusing On Community Is Your Best Marketing Strategy

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2. One story is not necessarily marathon worthy

Repeating a familiar tone, style, and story arc won’t guarantee content success immediately. Hallmark started airing just a few movies a year before it turned them into the full-blown Countdown to Christmas movie marathon. Now in its 12th year, the countdown ran Oct. 22 through Dec. 19, with new movies (including some double features) premiering every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (plus Thanksgiving).

After you publish or air a few pieces of content based on familiar elements, stand back and look at your audience’s reaction. Check your analytics: How many impressions or views does the content get during the first week or month? How much time do readers or viewers spend consuming it? How frequently do they click on the call to action?

Your analytics questions should connect directly with the goals of your content marketing strategy. Once you find which content type, themes, or story arc resonates best, double down on that formula.

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3. No spoiler alerts needed ­– it’s OK for the audience to know how the story ends

All Hallmark movies have happy endings. If they didn’t, they might not be as popular. Audiences enjoy the comfort of knowing how things will turn out. They don’t have to worry too much that things will turn out badly for the characters.

In marketing, case studies play a similar role. A brand wouldn’t publish a customer story that goes awry and remains unsolved. Audiences consume them even though they know the outcome will be positive. They want to know the story that brought the customer to the successful outcome. What problem did they need to solve? How did they search for a solution? Why did they choose yours? What benefits did they experience from the solution?

4. Familiar faces help

Hallmark movies usually include a familiar face (or two). Many of the actors started their careers as children ­ – including Candace Cameron Bure (Full House), Lacey Chabert (Party of Five), Tamera Mowry-Housley (Sister, Sister), and Danica McKellar (The Wonder Years).

Hallmark also uses the same lead actors – men and women – in multiple movies in a single season. They simply switch out the pairings, so the same actress and same actor don’t play against each other in the same season. For example, this year Lacey Chabert starred in Christmas Waltz, which debuted Nov. 28, and Time for Us to Come Home at Christmas, which debuted

debuted Dec. 5.

Two Hallmark Channel movies, each starting Lacey Chabert.

Audiences appreciate seeing faces they know. Think about featuring familiar faces – sources or storytellers – throughout your brand communications.

If you do a photoshoot for a customer profile that runs in a digital publication, for example, make sure that the customer becomes one of the faces on your corporate website. That approach lets your audience see someone they may recognize from your other content and communicates an authenticity that stock imagery can’t.

Or, create a video series with one specific thought leader as host or presenter in every episode.

Caveat: Improve on Hallmark’s formula for diversity. Here’s where I don’t recommend copying Hallmark. The channel’s lack of diversity in casting  ­– especially for lead roles – came under criticism a couple of years ago and even led to this 2019 Saturday Night Live skit:

Since then, Hallmark has made some strides (though it still has a long way to go.)

RELATED: Google Makes It Official: Content Marketing Is Now the #1 Ranking Factor

5. Consider producing sequels to popular stories

Some Hallmark movies prove so popular that the channel creates annual sequels. Does any of your crate content call out for sequels or even a spinoff series?

If you’ve profiled people or businesses, you could do a follow-up content piece to see what has and hasn’t changed since you last told their story. Likewise, if a podcast episode spikes your download or listening numbers, think about “what’s next” topics and add them to the editorial calendar.

Or, if you find someone who shines in front of an audience, consider giving that person a video or podcast show.

6. A bigger audience doesn’t require a bigger budget

Hallmark holiday movies attract about 80 million viewers for one holiday season, slightly more than Netflix series like The Crown or The Witcher, which cost much more to produce.

Hallmark productions reuse shooting locations (just as they reuse plot points) and whatever else they can. They may get a package-deal discount when actors’ contracts include multiple movies, too.

Keep this approach in mind as you contemplate how to do the most with your content marketing budget. Explore the set of content you’re planning and identify the resources you’ll need to create it. Then, look for ways to save by packaging production. For example, if you’re planning to publish a monthly video, could you save time and money by writing all the scripts and shooting them in one batch? (You’ll need to consider whether your on-camera talent should wear the same clothes or vary their outfits.)

Or, if you know you’ll need to hire freelancers to write multiple stories over the next six months, you might save time by finding one qualified writer and creating a single contract that covers all the pieces. You could even ask for a bulk discount.

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7. Expect copycats

The considerable success of Hallmark movies prompted multiple copycats. This year, Lifetime will air over 35 similar holiday movies. Last year, it ran 30, including the first same-sex lead storyline. (Hallmark aired its first movie featuring a gay couple later that season and created a sequel for 2021.) Netflix, Peacock, and others have lineups of romantic holiday movies, too.

Be flattered when other brands recreate what you’re doing, but don’t rest on your (not-so) original storytelling laurels. Even if your formula still works for your audience, reflect on what tweaks you could make to keep your content current, relevant, and yet reasonably familiar to your audience.

Don’t rest on your storytelling laurels. Reflect on small tweaks to your formula to keep #content feeling current, relevant, and (yet) still familiar, says @AnnGynn via @CMIcontentCLICK TO TWEET

Related: This Is How Top Bloggers Get 90% of Their Traffic

Watch out

I’ll follow the Hallmark model and deliver what you probably expected – unambiguous resolution. Fans, non-fans, and even haters of the Hallmark model can learn a lot about what to do – and what not to do – by studying its success.

The moral of the story: Audiences like to consume something familiar. With a bit of forward-thinking, you can create cozy content that works for them and your brand.

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 Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author Ann Gynn headshot

Author: Ann Gynn

Ann Gynn edits the CMI blog. Ann regularly combines words and strategy for B2B, B2C, and nonprofits, continuing to live up to her high school nickname, Editor Ann. Former college adjunct faculty, Ann also helps train professionals in content so they can do it themselves. Follow Ann on Twitter @anngynn or connect on LinkedIn.

Other posts by Ann Gynn